Based on Annie Ernaux’s memoir, the film situates the viewer in the early 1960s in France, where we meet promising young woman Anne Duchesne, a strong-minded literature student with high ambitions to further her studies and eventually become a professor. After a summer fling she finds herself weeks into an unwanted pregnancy and as time ticks on towards her final exams – a pivotal point in deciding her future – she tries to procure an abortion, with increasing desperation. This was a time when terminations were illegal in France and even assisting someone in finding a backstreet abortionist was punishable with prison time.
There is a distinct sense of paranoia and double standards at Anne’s school, where the female students don't understand the lens of misogyny through which they shame each other. Fraternising too much with the boys can land you with the label 'slut', 'easy' or 'loose woman' yet the opposite sex (of course) are free to explore their sexual urges, even poring over porn magazines. In one scene, a girl who is in Anne’s inner circle flirtatiously uses her handkerchief to wipe the blood from the skinned knee of one of the boys in her class. Anne spots the handkerchief, stained crimson, ruined for use and, like a knee-jerk reaction, softly warns her: "Look at your handkerchief. There. That’s all you got." It’s hammered into the puritanical female students that sexual liberation is a distraction and, worse, renders them tainted – even the word 'abortion' is clandestine and shushed in conversation. Their fate is set. If they don’t pass their exams they will end up as housewives or working the fields on a tractor, and one thing is clear: the school is no place for an unwed single mother. So for Anne, the stakes are high.
She sees a slew of doctors – always male – and, determined, asks for help. She is told that her treacherous chosen route will trigger only one of two stark eventualities: that "the law is unsparing" should she be reported or that "every month a girl ends up testing her luck and ends up dying in extreme pain." But Anne is clear-eyed, focused and unwavering. "I’d like a child one day," she tells one practitioner. "But not instead of a life."
The camera clings to Anne’s facial expressions – every moment of disappointment, exasperation or pain – a claustrophobic chokehold in which the viewer cannot look away. We are Anne’s only company as she wrestles with her secret burden; as the weeks go on, she becomes more and more isolated from those around her. Diwan is set on exploring how alone Anne is and we can't help but think, historically, of how alone other women have felt before and after her.
If a horror film serves to flood the viewer with terror and despair, then there are certainly points at which Happening meets the requirements of the genre. Amid some truly jaw-clenching, gory moments filled with bloodshed, one of the most disturbing scenes is when it dawns on Anne that a male doctor has lied and written her a prescription for estradiol, telling her that it will help her miscarry when in fact it strengthens the embryo. At this abuse of power, this deceitful elimination of choice, wrenched from Anne's hands, it's impossible not to feel fury and indignation as injustice courses through your body.
The clothes may be dated and the diction more formal in line with the era but much of the film feels timely and unsettlingly familiar, making you question how far we’ve really come. Taking into consideration the change of abortion law in Texas and the government’s recent u-turn on abortion here in the UK, it is clear that the long-term battle for women’s reproductive rights is still very much ongoing.
Without giving away the brutal but powerful ending, in one of the closing scenes we see Anne being asked by her professor about her recent absence from class and whether it was down to a bout of sickness. Bravely, she tells him yes: "The illness that only strikes women and turns them into housewives." Happening may be about abortion but ultimately it is about freedom – how the right to choose is central to humanity as well as a person's ability to define their own existence and carry out their life plan.
Happening is out in UK cinemas on 22nd April